Can the balance between divergent/convergent thinking explain mid career peaks? | January 25, 2016

Divergent/convergent thinking is a fundamental part of the design process, and something most experienced practitioners are familiar with. Essentially the design process is broken down into two phases; a phase where you open up the problem space and explore as many different directions as possible; and a phase where you start analysing all the possible solutions you’ve come up with, in order to settle on the perfect answer.

It’s easiest to see this approach play out in the world of branding; the designer filling their notebook with pages and pages of graphic experiments, before selecting a handful that meet the brief in different and interesting ways. Rest assured that all good designers work this way, from physical product designers cycling through dozens of concept drawings, through to interface designers exploring countless different UI variations.

If you’ve been involved in a well executed brainstorming session, you’ll understand the benefits of this approach; allowing you to explore a large number of ideas, without the dampening effect of analysis.

You may have also experienced a badly run “brainstorming” session where ideas are debated and discarded as soon as they are created. This approach not only slows the process down, severely reducing the volume of ideas that are generated, it also discounts potentially novel ideas before they’ve had chance to breath.

This process always reminds me of classic crime dramas where there detectives post all of the clue up on a wall in search of patterns. The mediocre detective will jump to the most obvious conclusion first, spending the rest of their time trying to prove their hunch right (and often arresting the wrong person in the process). Meanwhile our hero spends their time assembling clues, exploring the problem space, and analysing all the possible angles, before coming to the less obvious, but ultimately correct conclusion.

So as a designer, how do you decide how much time to spend exploring the problem space and generating ideas, versus honing in on the end solution? And what are the risks involved in spending too much or too little time on either activity?

In my experience, novice designers tend to jump to the convergent phase far too quickly. This is partly because they’ve been mis-sold the idea that design is driven by that elusive spark of creativity, rather than a deeper process of problem solving. Creative ideas are viewed as rare and precious things in need of immediate nurture.

Early in your career, all your ideas seem fresh and novel, so you’re eager to get stuck into the execution, especially as your craft skills are more developed than your ideation skills. Essentially you end up running from an area you don’t feel comfortable with, to one you better understand. I’ve seen plenty of novice designers abandon potentially interesting ideas in favour of more fully fleshed but obvious ones. These ideas may not seem obvious to the designer in question, but more experienced designers will have seen the same tropes time and again.

Good design educators work hard to prevent their students for jumping to the most obvious conclusion, running exercises like “100 designs in a day”. As the name suggests, the students are encouraged to come up with 100 versions of a common design problem, like designing a new chair. The first fifty or sixty designs are usually easy to come by and are typically discarded for being too obvious—variations of designs they’ve seen many times before. It’s the next twenty or thirty designs that get really interesting, where the designer has to really think about the problem and come up with something truly novel.

The “100 designs in a day” exercise is a type of “design game” that acts as a “forcing function”; essentially a way of forcing you to think divergently. The best designers will tend to have an arsenal of similar activities in their toolbox to draw upon when needed.

I’m always nervous when I come across designers who appear to be driven by “creativity” rather than process. Eventually this unbounded creativity will dry up, and they’ll be reduced to aping the styles of other designers, unable to explain their designs other than “it felt right”. Instead, like my old maths teacher, I like to see the workings out; to understand how the designer got to the current solution, and make sure they could replicate the process again and again.

If novice designers spend too little time exploring the possibility space, experienced designers often spend too long; trying to explore every nook and cranny and gather every piece of evidence possible before starting down the route to a solution. This is evidenced by the classic Einstein quote many senior designers love to re-iterate; “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.”

While it’s true that any nontrivial problem requires a good amount of divergent thinking, spending too much time exploring the problem can form a mental trap akin to analysis paralysis, making it difficult to come up with a solution that solves all the problems you’ve uncovered. This is one of the reasons why large organisations often benefit from enlisting the help of external consultants who can bring a fresh perspective unencumbered by years of exploration and analysis. But these external agents may only have a 6-month grace period before they get indoctrinated into the organisation and start getting similarly overwhelmed.

Architect Eliel Saarinen said it best when he famously said “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Novice designers regularly jump straight to the chair, ignoring the room it’s in, while very senior designers get so obsessed with the room, the house and the city plan, they ignore the impending seating needs. The logic often seems to be “how can I possibly design a chair, when the city infrastructure to deliver the chair is broken!”

From my experience working with students, interns and junior designers, novices often spend less than twenty percent of their time on divergent activities, and end up obsessing over the convergent process. This works for relatively simple projects, but fails for anything remotely complicated. By contrast, many senior designers will spend up to eighty percent of their effort on divergent thinking, leaving their production team to do most of the converging. Although the ultimate figure depends on the problem you’re solving, in general I think the balance needs to be closer to 60/40 in favour of divergent thinking.

If the idea that designers start their careers focussed on convergent thinking and become more divergent over time holds true, this may help explain why many designers seem to reach a creative peak around 8 years into their careers. At this point they have got out of the habit of rushing to the most obvious solution, and are spending a good deal of time understanding the problem and exploring a variety of leads. They still have enough focus on delivery to reserve enough time for convergence, thereby avoiding the divergence trap.

Posted at January 25, 2016 1:47 PM